Sunday, May 25, 2008

Janet TAY reviews Jhumpa LAHIRI's Unaccustomed Earth (2008)


By Jhumpa Lahiri
(Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 352pp)
ISBN 978-0676979343

Review by JANET TAY

JHUMPA LAHIRI is perhaps best known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 with Interpreter of Maladies, her début collection of stories about the Bengali Diaspora in the United States.

At the time, The New York Times compared her writing style to that of Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway—luminaries of the short-story genre—undoubtedly because of her sparse yet elegant and often deeply moving prose that borders on the poetic while remaining unassuming.

Lahiri, to me, is yet another one of those immensely talented authors who simply never writes often enough to keep her readers satiated in between books. (Ben Okri with his five-year intervals between books is another one.)

Interpreter of Maladies was published in 1999 and it was three long years before the début of her novel, The Namesake, a story about Bengali couple Ashoke and Ashima who leave their homes in Calcutta to begin married life amidst the loneliness and foreignness of 1960s surburban America.

The Namesake seems, arguably, slightly more subdued, and lacks the impact of Interpreter of Maladies, though that could be due to the different forms rather than quality.

India-born, U.S.-based filmmaker Mira Nair adapted The Namesake for the big screen. The movie is an admirable effort and further accentuates the best the novel has to offer.

More than half a decade after her first novel, Lahiri is finally back in print, this time with another short-story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.

The length of time between works is likely due to Lahiri’s constant revision of them. In an interview with Jill Owens on, Lahiri says that she had worked on most of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth for several years before publishing them, and that they had been “simmering for two to three years, minimum.”

The writer’s perfectionism is evinced in her well thought out and finely crafted stories.

The title story is in two narratives: Ruma, a young mother who tries to come to terms with her mother’s unexpected death on the operating table, and her father who worries about telling her that he has a new companion.

Ruma’s narrative reads almost like a kind of eulogy: a touching meditation of the past when mother and daughter disagreed and reconciled; when mother and daughter became grandmother and mother respectively; when everything fell into place perfectly until that untimely death.

It is Lahiri’s careful choice of words and ability to infuse them with emotions touching anyone who has loved and lost that magnifies the melancholy of this story, transforming ordinary grief (if there is such a thing) into extraordinary, tragic sentiments: “There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.”

Amidst Ruma’s grief and wonderment, she grapples with the awkward relationship she has with her father and with the void left by the loss of her mother, until she comes to the realisation that, unlike her, her father has moved on.

In ‘Hell-Heaven,’ a Bengali student finds himself a surrogate Bengali family in America, where being alone in a foreign country means that you have to make new friends who become almost family; people who are initially tied together only with the string of racial sameness and later take the places of parents, children and siblings. When his own parents do not approve of his marriage to an American woman, he seeks blessings from his surrogate parents: ‘“I don’t care. Not everyone can be as open-minded as you,” he told my parents. “Your blessing is blessing enough.”’ Trouble brews, however, when the mother falls in love with the student—an almost incestuous act—and in the process Lahiri shows that the breaking of taboos is only human.

In the second part of the book, Hema and Kaushik are the protagonists in three linked stories: a boy and girl who meet as teenager and child when the former is forced to share the latter’s home as a favour to his parents while they look for a new house in America.

The linked stories reveal the bittersweet connections between individuals that seem to unexpectedly share fates and destinies. The imagery of Hema’s departure from Kaushik is unforgettable—she leaves behind not only her childhood memories and all that Kaushik represented from her past but also her gold bangle with “small four-petaled flowers threaded along a vine.”

Mingled with Hema’s quiet devastation at leaving Kaushik is her superstitious dread at having left behind a piece of jewellery she had not taken off since childhood—she is left feeling as if “she had left a piece of her body behind.”

The effect Lahiri’s imagery and symbolism has—expressed through that solitary bangle—is not to be underestimated. Hema is drawn to Kaushik when he pulls her hand in his direction by hooking one of his fingers, “lightly but possessively” around the bangle, remembering that she had worn it as a child.

Although this love story is beautifully written, there are times when the events feel too coincidental and placed—their meeting in Rome after all those years apart and developing romantic feelings seem a little far-fetched. Here, Lahiri wavers a little in her attempt to create the pair’s temporal world.

Nevertheless, Lahiri, in this new collection, continues to create characters and stories that express the loneliness of human beings, whether due to Diaspora or their struggles to live with irreconcilability. There is always this feeling that one is leaving or has left something behind in situations often unavoidable; difficult decisions are made by Lahiri’s people, despite the pain of making them.

Her ability to stun the reader with a sentence is what makes her work a pleasure to read, as she deftly reflects real life and makes something meaningful out of the unspoken grief that sometimes permeates our seemingly ordinary lives.

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